A couple of weeks ago, I published an article on Medium about how the self-help industry sometimes gaslights us. It got a lot of response, mostly positive, but also generated confusion for some people. What I was referring to in the article is a viral strain of misinformation that has infected the personal development industry: toxic positivity.
The roots of positive psychology can be traced back to the mid-twentieth century and form a basis for much of what is written and practiced in the personal development industry today. This approach is based in research and has been shown to be effective in improving health and well-being. Some of what is popular in the self-help world (and on our Instagram feeds) however, is a disastrous oversimplification of these ideas which often results in unhealthy behavior.
We’re constantly bombarded with marketing, messaging and memes telling us to #staypositive and #liveourbestlives by doing more yoga, eating “clean” or “raising our vibe.” There are hundreds of self-help books and self-proclaimed experts who will tell you, often very persuasively, that all you have to do is stay positive and work hard and you can have whatever you desire. But, if that’s true, then isn’t the underlying message: “If things aren’t going well for you, it must be your fault because you’re just being negative or not trying hard enough?” And that’s about as helpful as a concrete parachute.
So, what’s the difference between healthy positive thinking and toxic positivity? Here are a few of the red flags to watch for, along with a few ideas to try.
Signs of toxic positivity
Staying positive at all costs – This approach to positivity is not only unrealistic, it’s unhealthy. As humans, we have a full range of emotions at our disposal and we can’t turn them off like a faucet. It’s important to acknowledge and process our emotions, even the “negative” ones like anger, grief or loneliness. Repressing our emotions can even be bad for our health.
Blaming yourself for things you have no control over – It’s one thing to point out that being more optimistic can make us feel better but the flip side of that often turns into blaming yourself for things that you don’t really control. Shifting your mindset can be powerful but it isn’t the only factor in many situations.
Using positivity as an excuse to bypass compassion – The above is hardly surprising, considering that many of the people preaching positivity do take it to the level of blaming people for attracting anything negative that’s in their lives. I’ve heard dozens of “spiritual influencers” claim that if people are unhappy it’s because they are choosing unhappiness.
While that may be true for some people, it’s profoundly untrue for others. There are real things that cause unhappiness: illness, oppression, violence, discrimination and poverty to name just a few. This type of thinking not only represents spiritual bypassing, it’s also a form of dehumanization.
Healthy positive thinking practices
Gratitude on the regular – Making a point to practice gratitude on a regular basis can improve our sense of well-being. Whether it’s taking a few moments each morning or keeping a gratitude journal before bed, making this a habit can be powerful.
Being generous – Giving people the benefit of the doubt not only makes your interactions more pleasant, it also frees up time and energy that you might spend replaying conversations or stewing on a perceived slight or injustice. When we start with the assumption that people are doing the best they can, it allows us to have more clarity about relationships and situations. Brené Brown’s research also tells us that people who practice being generous in their assumptions tend to be both happier and more likely to be generous with (and less hard on) themselves.
Broaden your perspective – Sometimes we can find ourselves getting stressed, upset or angry in a way that feels out of proportion to the situation at hand. While it’s important to process our emotions, we might also have an opportunity to think about how much our current circumstances really matter in the grand scheme of things. Ask yourself: “Will I even care about this in an hour? How about a week?” If the answer is no, maybe it’s easier to just let it go.
Practicing self-compassion – Being kind to yourself is powerful but it is something that doesn’t come easily to many of us. Visit Kristin Neff’s site to assess your self-compassion and learn practices for treating yourself like the beautiful human you are.